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Prevention and preparedness to empower capability and resilience: speech

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Prevention and preparedness to empower capability and resilience

18 April 2012



 Traditional Owners  Murray Kear, Commissioner, State Emergency Service NSW  Mark Duckworth, Executive Director, Citizenship and Resilience , Department of Premier and Cabinet, VIC

 David Place, Chief Executive, SAFECOM, SA  Representatives from Emergency Service and Community Groups and  Other distinguished guests


It is a great pleasure to join you this morning at an event that is very much at the heart of developments in Government policy around natural disasters.

Emergency management is a matter of critical national importance.

The country’s memories of the floods of the 2010-11 summer are still very vivid.

They unquestionably remain a national tragedy, as well as one of the worst natural disasters this nation has seen.

However, they were not a one-off event.

This summer our country also saw floods across New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria with many areas recovering.

And here in Victoria, just three years ago we were touched by the tragedy of the Black Saturday Bushfires.

Unfortunately, many Australian communities are all too familiar with how remarkably harsh and unforgiving our environment can be when we are faced with repeated threats from natural disasters.

However, what to me is even more remarkable is that no matter how bad things get, it is apparent that as soon as the flood waters recede or the fires subside, Australians are out in force, working to help clean up and taking the first steps to rebuild.

These acts of camaraderie - or mateship - are classic demonstrations of the generosity of the Australian community.

Indeed, I believe the Australian community spirit is one of our best national assets.

Of course, in addition to our strong community spirit, we do have other significant assets.

Together, we can make important changes and improvements to how Australia deals with natural disasters.

These include the work of Australia’s emergency services professionals and volunteers, along with members of the Australian Defence Force and State law enforcement officers.

These brave and highly skilled men and women have performed brilliantly throughout many disasters and consistently do a fantastic job in protecting the community.

As a newly appointed Minister for Emergency Management, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge their professionalism and commitment to the community, under extreme pressure and direct threat to their own lives and safety.

They are an outstanding and dedicated group of people.

I would also like to say that I am committed to providing the leadership that is needed to improve the way we face up to the natural disaster risk in this country.

I have spent the first month since being appointed being briefed on the many initiatives underway in this area, including the good work that was started by my predecessor Robert McClelland. I also had an opportunity to visit some flood affected areas in Victoria in my first week on the job.

Today I can provide you with an update on a number of these projects to help to prevent major damage happening as a result of natural disasters.

My highest priority in this regard is implementing the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience.

National Strategy

As you probably know, the Strategy was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments in February last year.

It recognises that a national, coordinated and cooperative effort is needed to enhance Australia’s capacity to withstand and recover from disasters.

Indeed, the Strategy is the first step in a long term, evolving process to deliver sustained behavioural change and enduring partnerships.

It provides high level guidance on disaster management to federal, state, territory and local governments, as well as business and community leaders.

Importantly, the Strategy focuses on the shared responsibility of governments, business and communities in preparing for, and responding to disasters.

There are three national trends that have motivated the development of the Strategy and the Government’s planning for natural disasters.

The first trend is increasing exposure and vulnerability to disasters in Australian society.

We have always known that this is a land of droughts and flooding rains - not to mention: fires, earthquakes, storms and cyclones!

Individuals and communities have always adapted to live with these natural phenomena.

However, demographics are shifting.

Populations have swollen in disaster prone areas, particularly along the coast and urban fringe.

More Australians are making ‘tree changes’ or ‘sea changes’.

They are moving out of the cities to beautiful, but sometimes more hazardous areas.

And they are often taking with them urban expectations of government and emergency services.

Australians are commuting more, and are increasingly dependent on technology and infrastructure both at home and at work.

These changes produce many benefits, but also increase our exposure and vulnerability to disasters.

In response to this trend, the Strategy emphasises that all of us must have a proper understanding of the risk we face and must take responsibility to manage that risk.

The second trend is the increasing cost of disasters to the taxpayer and the economy.

Last year in Queensland the cost to Commonwealth taxpayers was around $5.7 billion. This combined our two major disaster recovery programs, giving communities a helping hand, providing support to individuals and families, small businesses, primary producers and the broader community.

Assessments by Treasury following last year’s disaster season, estimate that the combination of disasters cost the Australian economy $9 billion in lost output, with coal production

suffering the largest direct impact ($6 billion), followed by agricultural production losses ($1.9 billion) and reduction in the tourism and retail sectors.

This is just one peak in an overall trend towards increasing costs of disaster recovery - which has continued this year.

This level of cost is not sustainable for the Australian economy.

In response to this trend, the Strategy emphasises a focus on prevention and preparedness to decrease the burden on response and recovery. As in so many areas, prevention is better than cure.

Reports in the past have shown that one dollar spent on mitigation saves at least two dollars spent on recovery - not to mention reducing risk of hardship, economic loss, and loss of life.

So the strategy is to focus more on the importance of investment in mitigation.

The third trend is the increasing expectation on emergency management professionals and volunteers.

In my old portfolio I most commonly saw this when the community expected miracles from doctors, nurses and researchers, as medical technology marched through new and more improved frontiers.

We are already asking a tremendous amount from our emergency workers.

In the events of the past few years, we have seen emergency organisations and their staff pushed to their limits.

While we must remain committed to supporting them, we must also recognise the peril in over-relying on them.

In response to this trend, the Strategy emphasises that disaster resilience is a shared responsibility.

The response to this trend is to emphasise that the rest of the Australian community must do as much as we can to take responsibility for our own risks, so that emergency workers can focus on their crucially important job.

Disaster management is not something that only emergency professionals and volunteers need to think about.

Disaster management is something that every individual, every family, every business, every community and every level of government needs to think about.

This last point takes up a resilience approach.

It requires all levels and sectors of society to proactively share in the responsibility of managing risk.

The Government has an important role to ensure that the responsibility for disaster risk is aligned with the decision making power required to manage that risk.

Preparation isn’t just about making sure that the fire trucks are ready to roll, or that we have sandbags on hand.

Preparation is also about looking to the long term to ensure that planning mistakes of yesteryear are not made again.

To show how we are helping create greater national resilience, I would like to briefly outline some of the initiatives that are underway.

Risk Assessment

The Government recognises that clear and accurate information is absolutely essential to understanding the disaster risks we live with.

Governments have an important role in developing and sharing this information.

That’s why, under the National Partnership Agreement for Disaster Resilience, states and territories have undertaken disaster risk assessments against priority hazards.

For example, Victoria has developed risk assessments against the threat of bushfires and floods, as opposed to the Northern Territory that highlights cyclones as a priority.

In cooperation with states and territories, the Australian Government has also agreed on a nationally consistent methodology for future risk assessments.

For the first time in Australia, we have a national approach to this important matter.

Flood Mapping

The Australian Government is also developing an information portal for flood risk information in Australia.

The portal will be hosted by Geoscience Australia and will provide a single, authoritative and publically available source of flood risk information.

States and territories have expressed support for this initiative and are taking steps to expedite provision of flood mapping data to the portal.

Resilience Communication

Of course, having risk information is of little value if it is not communicated to individuals and the community.

Governments are working together to ensure consistent messages about disaster resilience are provided to all Australians.

The plan focuses on six key messages:

• disasters will happen

• disaster resilience is your business

• connected communities are resilient communities

• know your risk

• get ready, then act, and

• learn from experience.

How we deliver these messages in a way that effects real change in the community is the challenge we are now addressing.

We know this requires a detailed and consistent approach. We need to better engage with the community using existing tools, like the Disaster Resilience Website and use new mediums like the DisasterWatch application.

The Government needs to build a network of partners to help communicate our key messages, including those in the private and public sector, including emergency management and not-for-profit organisations.

DisasterWatch Application

While there is an increased emphasis on prevention and resilience, it does not mean that preparedness, response and recovery can be forgotten.

In these areas too, there is room for improvement through greater understanding of risk and better alignment of responsibility.

With respect to preparedness, it is very important that people have clear and authoritative information about disasters in their local area.

They need to know the risks they face on a particular day.

To answer this need, Government has developed the DisasterWatch smartphone application to improve people’s access to this information.

DisasterWatch displays up-to-date disaster information via direct feeds from a range of authoritative state, territory and national sources.

Since being launched in December last year, the application has been downloaded more than 13,000 times.

This application builds on our online tools, such as the disaster assist website.

Emergency Alert

People also need to know when they face immediate risks in an emergency and when to activate their disaster plans.

For this reason the Australian Government continues to work with states and territories to improve the national telephone-based emergency warning system.

Known as ‘Emergency Alert’, the system allows states and territories to send voice warnings to landlines and text warnings to mobile phones, based on the customer’s registered address.

So far, Emergency Alert has been used in more than 300 warning campaigns and has sent more than 7 million warning messages.

Work is currently underway to implement an enhancement to the system that will allow warnings to be sent to mobile phones based on their last known location.


The Australian Government remains committed to supporting the recovery of individuals and communities that experience true hardship from natural disasters.

In response to the 2010-11 natural disasters across the country, we provided 727,000 Australians with Australian Government Disaster Relief Payments - $837 million.

This in combination with Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements payments (estimated at $6 billion in 2010/11) seeks to lend a helping hand in recovery.

Through our recovery support, the Commonwealth provides financial assistance to state and territory governments to alleviate the burden of providing emergency and recovery assistance to disaster affected individuals, small businesses, primary producers and the broader community, as well as providing for the restoration or replacement of local or state/territory government essential public assets.

We recognise that proper approaches to financial and other assistance following a disaster can lead a community to rebuild itself more quickly, and in a manner more resilient to future disasters.

Recovery Handbook Launch

Today, I am very pleased to launch another initiative - the revised Community Recovery Handbook.

It is part of the Australian Emergency Handbook Series and is a comprehensive guide to community recovery in Australia.

First written in 1996, this new edition reflects the many changes in governance and policy in both emergency and recovery management that have occurred over the past decade or so.

The handbook is intended for use by planners, managers and those involved in working with communities to design and deliver recovery processes, services, programs and activities within the national disaster resilience framework.

It includes expanded and updated information on key issues such as community-led recovery.

I would like to commend all the contributing writers for their diligence and stamina in completing the publication while continuing their respective day-to-day roles in disaster recovery.

And I would also like to thank staff from the Australian Emergency Management Institute, who led and coordinated the project.

The handbook can be downloaded from the Emergency Management Australia website and hard copies are available for purchase.

I encourage you all to read the handbook and use it to enhance your recovery work.


In a country as large and diverse as Australia, emergency management and prevention is always a key challenge.

I have today outlined a number of the initiatives that the Government is developing in this important area of public policy.

While traditionally this was seen as a state and territory area, increasingly the Australian Government is playing a stronger and stronger role given where a national system is needed, or where lessons can be shared. The national importance given the economic impact is evidence of this alone.

I think overtime we’re going to see this role strengthen, but in partnership with states, local councils, businesses and individuals - particularly as we focus more on resilience against such disasters.

I wish you all the very best for this conference - and I look forward to hearing the outcomes. Thank you.